Dressing, Reading, and Listening for Success

I see that Brooks Brothers has entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a result of changing tastes in business apparel aggravated by the Covid-19 lockdowns.  I’m reminded of something in Father, Son, & Co by long-time IBM CEO Tom Watson Jr.  (The best business autobiography I’ve ever read)

One of the many people mentioned by Watson in the book is a slightly older executive named Al Williams..much admired by Watson for the way he had worked his way up from a rough background in a coal-mining town to a high executive position at IBM.  When Watson asked him how he had done it–how he got so smooth, he seemed like a graduate of Yale–Williams said that his self-improvement program had three fundamental elements:

–buy suits at Brooks Brothers
–read the classics
–listen to classical music

(He also played tennis for an hour a day)

I wonder what an equivalent program might look like in the year 2020?  The Brooks Brothers element seems pretty much negated by that company’s financial results, although there are surely differences from industry to industry.  But what would be the present-day equivalents of reading the classics and listening to classical music?

Watching videos of TED talks, perhaps?

11 thoughts on “Dressing, Reading, and Listening for Success”

  1. J Press suits and Kamakura shirts, perhaps. Although, not being much of a high-flier, I might trawl through LL Bean and Lands End first for some less expensive, but still tasteful alternatives.

    The classics never go out of style. The Daily Stoic, et al., are all the rage in Silicon Valley and on Hacker News.

    Personally, I recently upgraded our croquet set and have been devoting attention to studying outdoor cocktails. I don’t know if this will get me ahead in life, but it is a nice socially distant activity that is still reasonably social.

  2. That must explain my problems. I own one suit that I’ve worn exactly three times in 25 years. It’s a good one but not Brooks Brothers and now it’s too late. I read a lot more crime and science fiction than classics. The only thing I do right is classical music.

  3. Meh. None of that works that way any more.
    We don’t seem to appreciate ability the way we did.
    Credentials and connections matter far more than acumen.

  4. To some people at, at least, *family* connections mattered a whole lot in those days. Watson mentions a girl he was interested when he was young, but her mother marked him as off-limits because he didn’t come from an Old Family.

    IBM wasn’t then the behemoth it later became, but it was already a very prominent and successful corporation…yet the CEO’s son was not viewed as coming from an acceptable heritage.

    At least we have a lot less of the particular kind of snobbery today.

  5. Business and the culture surrounding it were a lot more oriented towards New York City/ New England back then, along with its social stratifications. Now everything is more decentralized. It reminds me of Tom Wolfe describing the difference between the working lunches at Intel circa 1970 and corporate lunches back in Manhattan

    Noyce was a great believer in meetings. The people in each department or work unit were encouraged to convene meetings whenever the spirit moved them. There were rooms set aside for meetings at Intel, and they were available on a first come, first served basis, just like the parking spaces. Often meetings were held at lunch time. That was not a policy; it was merely an example set by Noyce. There were no executive lunches at Intel. Back east, in New York, executives treated lunch as a daily feast of the nobility, a sumptuous celebration of their eminence, in the Lucullan expense-account restaurants of Manhattan. The restaurants in the East and West Fifties of Manhattan were like something from out of a dream. They recruited chefs from all over Europe and the Orient. Pasta primavera, saucisson, sorrel mousse, homard cardinal, terrine de legumes Montesquiou, paillard de pigeon, medallions of beef Chinese Gordon, veal Valdostana, Verbena roast turkey with Hayman sweet potatoes flown in from the eastern shore of Virginia, raspberry soufflé, baked Alaska, zabaglione, pear torte, creme brulee; and the wines! and the brandies! and the port! the Sambuca! the cigars! and the decor! walls with lacquered woodwork and winking mirrors and sconces with little pleated peach-colored shades, all of it designed by the very same decorators who walked duchesses to parties for Halston on Eaton Square! and captains and maitre d’s who made a fuss over you in movie French in front of your clients and friends and fellow overlords! it was Mount Olympus in mid-Manhattan every day from twelve-thirty to three P.M. and you emerged into the pearl-gray light of the city with such ambrosia pumping through your veins that even the clotted streets with the garbage men backing up their grinder trucks and yelling, ” ‘Mon back, ‘mon back, ‘mon back, ‘mon back,” ‘ as if talking Urban Chippewa? even this became part of the bliss of one’s eminence in the corporate world! There were many chief executive officers who kept their headquarters in New York long after the last rational reason for doing so had vanished…because of the ineffable experience of being a CEO and having lunch five days a week in Manhattan!

  6. Honestly, I think my own fashion sense, such as it is, was formed, or at least defined by certain sections outlined in The Preppy Handbook. That and another guide to personal fashion – Cheap Chic.

    The accumulated advice of these two books was stick to excellent-quality garments, which flattered you, fitted well and comfortably, suited your particular lifestyle, and maintained a classic, eternal look. The trendy and superficially transient? – drop it like a radioactive rock, since you will look freaking ridiculous in ten or fifteen years in pictures taken of you. I think my next youngest brother and his friends are still trying to live down 1970/80s pictures of wedding parties.

  7. When I was working I read the book dress for success by John Malloy..

    And what he said all those decades ago is still true.

    What is particularly interesting is the difference people perceive you wearing a tie versus not. He mentioned this in the book about various experiments they did.

    Other memorable one is being in a restaurant and telling the waiter that I forgot my wallet. Virtually all who had a coat and tie or excuse to get their wallet and return versus the others…

    I can remember when we used to do mass mailing for customers and I would want to know what happened to a particular mailing. I’d walk through the working area at theain post office with a tie and nobody ever questioned me.

    There is one caveat there: Never outdress your boss

    Now what has changed in the intervening decades is high tech.

    There’s a McLaren dealership in the peninsula by Menlo park.

    And someone coming in with tattered jeans may pop down cash in the hundreds of thousands for a new McLaren.

    I think the tech sector sector is the one exception to all this.

    Even once mighty IBM relaxed their standards. You’ll see the CEO in a sweater now.

    At one time if you didn’t show up in the pre-requisite gray or blue suit with appropriate shirt and tie you were sent home.

  8. I too read the Watson autobiography…amazing candor made him human and a worthy read.

    I think today the quality and depth of the social media personal network has replaced Brooks Brothers dress—though I still like BB’s all cotton shirts and Repp ties.

  9. One more thought. Class is a lot more than dress and buying quality clothes from BBs or Nordstrom. It’s mostly about parents and upbringing. Investment Banking still recruits this way.

  10. Steve K…”One more thought. Class is a lot more than dress and buying quality clothes from BBs or Nordstrom. It’s mostly about parents and upbringing. Investment Banking still recruits this way.”

    And a lot of people with wealthy parents wind up going into the Finance industry, investment banking or otherwise, when their talents could probably have been more valuable–maybe even more profitable–in other industries. Thinking of a specific case of that.

  11. David, I think of Hedge Funds siphoning STEM PhD graduates from MIT, Berkeley, Univ of IL, etc. to work in finance and trading algorithms.

    A national waste. Society is paying a price of lost opportunity. Out of whack.

Comments are closed.